7. Jay-Z, S. Carter Collection (2003)
This collection captures Young Hov at the tipping point between MC and mogul, back when the release of a signature Reebok shoe was still cause for excitement.
At the top of the "Flava in Ya Ear Freestyle," he speaks of going half on a boat with Puff. 10 years later, picture Shawn Carter going half on anything—except maybe another baby with Beyoncé (whose refreshingly ratchet interlude here is a definite highlight). On the "Blunts and Armadale" freestyle, Jigga muses about a future project called The Black Album, which he describes as "the bookends to the whole career."
Nothing can touch the lyrical onslaught of the "Pump It Up Freestyle" on which Jay asks, "Who's the nicest, life or lifeless/On these mic devices, and I don't write this/I just mic this; I will it to happen." Nowadays there seems nothing Jay-Z cannot will to happen, and it's a wonder to behold. Still it's nice to revisit the time when rapping was enough. —Rob Kenner